RED ROSE AND TIGER LILY
Or, In a Wider World
By MRS. L. T. MEADE
A BUNCH OF CHERRIES, A RING OF RUBIES, BAD LITTLE HANNAH, ETC.
"Nothing is required but to set the right way to work, but of course the really important thing is to succeed." —Story of the Poor Tailor.
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
COPYRIGHT, 1894, BY
THE CASSELL PUBLISHING COMPANY
All rights reserved
I. NAN'S GOLDEN MANE 1
II. CRUSHED 8
III. TWO PROVERBS 16
IV. THE COLTS—ROBIN AND JOE 23
V. NOT MISSED 32
VI. FRIAR'S WOOD 42
VII. THE STORY BOOK LADY 53
VIII. ALONE IN THE WOOD 63
IX. "I BROKE MY WORD," SAID ANNIE 70
X. AN AWFULLY FRIVOLOUS GIRL 79
XI. THE DIAMOND RING 88
XII. THE LAND OF PERHAPS 97
XIII. THE FANCY BALL 113
XIV. POOR MRS. MYRTLE 124
XV. "THE WAY OF TRANSGRESSORS" 132
XVI. PERHAPS 143
XVII. FAIRY AND BROWNIE 152
XVIII. THE LORRIMERS OF THE TOWERS 161
XIX. TOPSY-TURVEY 171
XX. THE NEW OWNERS 179
XXI. HESTER SPEAKS HER MIND 194
XXII. ANTONIA'S GIFT 207
XXIII. TRUTH AND FIDELITY 215
XXIV. A WET SPONGE 222
XXV. MOLLY'S SORROW 234
XXVI. PLOT THICKENS 245
XXVII. NELL IS IN TROUBLE 252
XXVIII. THE LION AND MOUSE 262
XXIX. GOD BLESS ANTONIA 274
RED ROSE AND TIGER LILY
IN A WIDER WORLD
NAN'S GOLDEN MANE.
It was a perfect summer's evening. The sun had just set, and purple, gold, violet, rose colour still filled the sky in the west. There was a tender new moon, looking like a silver bow, also to be seen; before long the evening star would be visible.
Hester Thornton stepped out of the drawing-room at the Grange, and, walking a little way down the broad gravel sweep, began to listen intently. Hester was about seventeen—a slender girl for her age. Her eyes were dark, her eyebrows somewhat strongly marked, her abundant hair, of a much lighter shade of brown, was coiled in close folds round her well-shaped head. Her lips were slightly compressed, her chin showed determination. Hester had not been beautiful as a child, and she was not beautiful as a girl, but her face was pleasant to look at, very bright when animated, very steadfast and sweet when in repose. The air was like nectar to her cheeks. She was naturally a pale girl, but a faint rose colour was now discernible in her complexion, and the look of expectation in her dark eyes made them charming.
A step was heard on the gravel behind, and she turned quickly.
"Is that you, father?" she exclaimed.
"Yes. Are not you very imprudent to come out at this hour in your thin house shoes, and with nothing on your head? There is a very heavy dew falling."
"Oh, I never take cold," replied Hester with a smile, which showed her even and pretty white teeth; "and I certainly shan't to-night," she continued, "for I am feeling far too excited."
Sir John Thornton was considered by most of his acquaintances (he could boast of scarcely any friends) as a reserved and almost repellent person, but now, as his eyes rested on his young daughter, something seemed to soften their expression; he took her slight hand and drew it affectionately through his arm.
"It takes a small thing to excite you, my love," he said; "but you always were of a turbulent disposition—just your poor mother over again."
Hester sighed faintly when Sir John spoke of his wife, then she quickly cheered up and said in an eager voice—
"You don't call it a little thing, father, to know that in a minute or two I shall welcome Nan back from school? Nan comes to-night—Annie Forest to-morrow. It would be difficult for any girl to want more to make her perfectly happy."
Sir John raised his brows.
"I only know Miss Forest by hearsay," he said, "so I will reserve my judgment upon her; but I do know Nan. She will upset the entire regime of the house. I like order, and she likes disorder. I like quiet meals, she likes uproarious ones. I hate shocks and she adores them. I am glad, of course, to welcome the child home, but at the same time I dread her arrival. I cannot possibly understand how it is that Mrs. Willis, who is supposed to be such a splendid instructor of youth, should not have brought Nan a little better into control. Now, you, my dear Hetty, are very different. You have passions and feelings—no one has them more strongly—but you keep them in check. Your reticence and your reserve please me much. In short, Hester, no father could have a more admirable daughter to live with him. I am pleased with you, my dear; the experiment of having you home from school to look after my house has turned out well. There is nothing I would not do to please you, and while your friend Miss Forest is here, I will do my best to render her visit a success. The only discordant element will be Nan. I cannot understand why Mrs. Willis has not got Nan into the same control she had you in."
"You forget," said Hester, "that I am seventeen and Nan only eight. No one ever yet could say 'No' to Nan. Father, don't you hear the carriage wheels? She is coming—I know she is coming. Please forgive me, I must run to meet her."
Sir John released his daughter's hand, and Hester flew with the speed of an arrow from a bow up the long avenue. She was not mistaken. Her keen ears had detected the smooth roll of wheels. A landau drawn by a pair of horses had even now entered the lodge gates. Hester, looking up, heard some gay voices, some childish laughter. Then an imperious voice shouted to the coachman to pull up the horses and Nan Thornton and another girl sprang out of the carriage and ran to Hester's side.
Confused utterances, sundry embraces, the quick intermingling of ejaculations, kisses, commands, explanatory remarks—all rose on the sweet night air.
"Hetty, you look quite grown up. Please, Jenkins, you can drive on to the house. I'm not getting in again. Aren't you glad to see me, Het? I have come back a greater tease and torment than ever."
"Yes, Nan, delighted—more than delighted. Oh! you sweet, how nice it is to feel you kissing me! Why, Annie, how did you happen to come to-night? I didn't expect you until to-morrow. I was wondering how I could endure the next twenty-four hours of expectation, even with Nan to keep me company, and now you are here. Oh, how very, very glad I am."
"Kiss me, Hester," said Annie. "Nan and I concocted this little plan. We thought we'd take you by surprise. Oh dear, oh dear, I feel so wild and excited that I'm sure I shall be just as troublesome as I used to be before you tamed me down at school. Now then, Nan, you are not to have all the kisses. Hester, dear, how sweet and gracious and prim and lady-of-the-manorish you do look!"
"I don't care what I look like, I only know what I feel," replied Hester: "about the happiest girl in England. But don't let us stand here talking any longer, or father will take it into his head that I am catching cold in the night air. Here, Nan, take my arm. Annie, my other side is at your disposal. Now, do let us come to the house."
The girls began to move slowly down the long winding avenue. Nan had the pretty, soft dark eyes which used to characterise her as a little child. Her abundant fluffy golden hair hung below her waist. Her baby lips and sweet little face looked as charming as of old. She was a very pretty child, and promised to be a beautiful woman by-and-by. Her beauty, however, was nothing at all beside the radiant sort of loveliness which Annie Forest possessed. She was a creature all moods, all expression, all life, all movement. She had early given promise of remarkable beauty, and this had been more than fulfilled. Hester glanced at her now and again in the most loving admiration.
"It is good to have you back, Nan," she said, "and it is delightful to know that you have come at last to pay your long, long promised visit," she continued, looking at Annie. "Well, here we are at home. Nan, you must go up and show yourself to nurse this minute. Annie, let me take you to your room."
"Dear old nursey," said Nan; she rushed up the stairs, shouting her old nurse's name as she went; her quick footsteps flew down the long corridor, she pushed open the baize door which separated the nurseries from the rest of the house, and in a moment found herself in the old room.
Nan's nurse was a cherry-cheeked old woman of between sixty and seventy years of age.
"Eh, my darling, and how did you get back without me hearing the sound of the carriage wheels!" she exclaimed. "Eh dear, eh dear, I meant to be down on the front steps to greet you, Miss Nan. Eh, but you look bonny, and let me examine your hair, dear—I hope they cut the points regular. If they don't, it will break away and not keep even."
"Oh, don't bother about my hair now," said Nan. "What does hair signify when a child has just got home, and when she wants a kiss more than anything else in the world? Now, nursey, sit down in that low armchair and let us have a real hug. That's better; and how are you? You look as jolly as ever."
"So I am, my pet; I'm as happy as the day is long since Miss Hetty has come home and took the housekeeping over. I was in a mortal fret before, with her at school and you at school, but now I think the danger is past."
"What danger?" asked Nan; "you always were a dear old croak, you know, nurse."
"Yes, pet, perhaps so; but I didn't fret without reason, you may be quite sure of that."
"Well, what were you afraid of? You know I'm an awfully curious girl, so you must tell me."
"It's a sin to be too curious, Miss Nan—it leads people into untold mischief. Curiosity was the sin of Eve, and it's best to nip it in the bud while you're young. Now let me brush out your hair, my darling, and get you ready for supper."
"Yes, in a minute," said Nan. She pushed back the shady hat in which she had traveled, and seated herself afresh on her nurse's knee.
"How do my kisses feel?" she asked, breathing a very soft one on each of the old woman's cheeks.
"Eh, dear," said the nurse, "they're like fresh cream and strawberries."
"Well, you shall have six more if you tell me what your fears were."
Nurse looked admiringly back at Nan.
"You're just the audacious, contrary, troublesome bit of a thing you always were," she said; "but somehow I can't resist you. There's no fear now of anything happening, so you needn't be in a taking; but what did put me out was this: I thought your father, Sir John, might be bringing a new mistress here."
"What! a new mistress?—A housekeeper, do you mean?" Nan's brown eyes were open at their widest.
"No, dearie, no, a wife—someone to take the head of the house. Men like Sir John must have their comforts, and a house without a mistress isn't as it ought to be. But there, Miss Hetty is here now, and that makes everything right."
"But a new mistress," repeated Nan—"a new wife for father. Why, she—she'd be a stepmother. Oh, how I'd hate her."
"Well, darling, there's not going to be any such person; it was only an idle fear of your poor old nurse's that will never come to anything. Forget that I said it to you, Miss Nan. Oh, my word! and there's the gong, so supper is ready, and Sir John won't like to be kept waiting. Let me brush out your hair, I won't be a minute. Now, there's my pretty. It's good to have you back again, Miss Nancy. Only I misdoubt me that you'll turn the house topsy-turvey, as you always and ever did."
While nurse was speaking, she was deftly and quickly changing Nan's travel-stained frock for a white one, and was tying a coral pink sash round her waist.
"Now you're ready," she said, giving the little figure a final pat.
Nan shook out her golden mane and went demurely downstairs—more demurely than was her wont. The dawning of possible trouble filled her sweet eyes. A new wife—a possible stepmother! Oh, no, by no possibility could such a horror be coming; nevertheless, her full cup of happiness was vaguely troubled by the thought.
Sir John Thornton could be a very pleasant host. He was a reserved man with a really cold nature. He disliked fuss and what he called "ebullitions of affection;" he hated kissing and fondling. He liked to treat even his nearest and dearest with ceremony, but he was a perfect host—the little attentions, the small politenesses which the role of host requires, suited his character exactly. Hester and Nan, his only children, were his opposites in every respect. It is true that Hester inherited some of his pride, and a good deal of his reserve, but the fire underneath her calm, the passionate love which she could give so warmly to her chosen friends, she inherited from her mother, not from her father. Nan had never yet shown reserve to anyone. As far as any creature could be said to be without false pride, Nan was that individual—she was also absolutely devoid of fear. She believed that all the world loved her. Why not? She was perfectly willing to love all the world back again. If it chose to hate her, she could and would hate it in return with interest; but, then, why should it? The world was a good place to Nan Thornton up to the present.
Now, Sir John dreaded his impulsive younger daughter more than words can say. Perhaps somewhere in his heart he had a certain fatherly admiration for her, but if so it did not show itself in the usual fatherly way. Annie Forest was at the present moment absorbing his attention.
Annie was between sixteen and seventeen years of age; she was still, of course, quite a child in Sir John's eyes, but she was undoubtedly very pretty—she had winning ways and bright glances. Her little speeches were full of wit and repartee, and she was naturally so full of tact that she knew when a word would hurt, and therefore seldom said it.
When Nan entered the room in which a hasty supper had been prepared for the hungry travellers, she found her father and Annie talking pleasantly to one another at one end of the table, while Hester presided over the tea equipage at the other.
"Here you are, little whirlwind," said Sir John, slipping his arm round his younger daughter's waist and drawing her for a moment to his side.
Nan looked at him soberly. She gazed into his eyes and examined the curves of his lips, and noted with satisfaction the wrinkles on his brow, the crows' feet at the corner of each eye, and some strong lines which betokened the advance of years in the lower part of his face.
"You're too old," she said, in a contemplative voice. "I'm so glad—you're much too old."
She stroked his deepest wrinkle affectionately as she spoke.
Now Sir John hated being considered old, and an angry wave of colour mounted to his forehead.
"As usual, you are a most impolite little girl," he said. "I do not trouble myself to inquire what your sage remark means, nor why you rejoice in the fact of my possessing the infirmities of years; but I wish to repeat to you a proverb which I hope you will bear in mind, at least, when in my presence during the holidays, 'Little girls should be seen and not heard.' Now go to your seat."
Sir John released his hold of Nan's broad waist and turned to Annie.
"Yes, a good deal of the country is flat," he said, "but we have some pretty drives. Are you fond of riding?"
"I should be if I had a chance," replied Annie; "but the fact is, I never was on horseback since I was five years old, so I cannot be said to know much about it."
"I am sure you could quickly learn," said Sir John. "Hester has a very quiet pony which she can lend you while you are here. By the way, Hester, Squire Lorrimer called to-day. I said you would go to the Towers to-morrow morning—you can take Miss Forest with you. The Lorrimers are a very lively household, and it will amuse her to know them."
"I should think they are lively," burst from Nan at the far end of the table. "How is Kitty Lorrimer, and how is Boris? And have they got as many pets as ever? Oh, can you tell me, please, father, if the dormouse has awakened yet? It was fast asleep when I was home at Christmas, and Boris said it mightn't wake again until May. Boris was so sorry it wasn't quite dead, because he wanted to stuff it; but he couldn't if it was alive, could he? That would be cruel, wouldn't it? Father, can you tell me if the dormouse is awake?"
Sir John fixed a cold eye upon Nan.
"I am unacquainted with the state of the dormouse's health," he said—"disgusting little beasts," he added, turning for sympathy to Annie, whose bright dark eyes danced with fun as she watched him.
"They're not disgusting; they're perfectly heavenly little darlings," came from Nan in an indignant voice. "Oh, and what about the white rats? Boris had four in a box when I went last to the Towers, and Kitty had one all to herself, and Boris and Kitty were always fighting as to which were the most beautiful—the one rat or the four. Did you ever see a white rat, Annie? They are pets, with long tails like worms."
"Hester," exclaimed Sir John, "will you induce Nan to hold her tongue and eat her supper in peace?"
Hester bent forward and whispered something to Nan, who shrugged her shoulders indignantly. Her face grew crimson.
"I can't learn that proverb," she said, after a pause. "I can't obey it, its no use trying. Father, do you hear? I can't be one of those seen-and-not-heard girls. Do you hear me, father?"
"I do, Nan. If we have finished supper, shall we go into the drawing-room?" he added, turning to Annie.
Nan lingered behind. She slipped her hand through her sister's arm and dragged her on to the terrace.
"I feel so wicked that I think I'll burst," she exclaimed. "Why is father always throwing a damp cloth over me?"
"Nan, dear, you irritate him a good deal. Why do you talk in that silly way when you know he cannot bear it?"
"Because I'm Nan," answered the child, pouting her lips.
"But Nan can learn wisdom," said Hester, in her sweet elder-sisterly tone. "Even though you are the liveliest, merriest, dearest little girl in the world, and though it is delicious to have you back"—here there came an ecstatic hug—"you need not say things that you know will hurt. For instance, you are perfectly well aware that father does not like his age commented on."
"Oh, that," said Nan, some of the trouble which nurse's words had caused coming back to her eyes. "Oh, but I really said what I meant, then—it was not mischief. I was so glad to see that he is old. I love those wrinkles of his—I adore them."
"What can you mean, you queer little thing?"
"Why, you see, Hetty, he won't be attractive, and there'll be no fear."
"No fear of what?"
"Nurse said that perhaps he'd be having a wife, and giving us a stepmother."
"Oh, what nonsense!" said Hester, in a vexed tone. "What a silly thing for nurse to say. I am quite surprised at her. As far as I can tell our father has no intention of marrying again; but if he did?"
"If he did," repeated Nancy, "nurse says that you wouldn't be mistress of the Grange any longer."
A wistful sort of look, half of pain, half of suppressed longing, filled Hester's dark eyes for a moment.
"I might go out into the world," she said, "and have my heart's desire."
"But aren't you happy here?"
"Yes, oh yes! I am talking nonsense. My duty lies here, at least at present. Mrs. Willis has taught me always to put duty first. Now, Nan, let us forget what is not likely to happen. It is nearly time for you to go to bed; you look quite tired; there are black rings under your eyes; but first, just tell me about Mrs. Willis and the dear old school."
"Mrs. Willis is well," said Nan, with a yawn, "and the school is in statu quo. I am in the middle school now, and perhaps I shall get a drawing-room to myself before long. I'm not sure though, for I never can be tidy."
"I wish you could be; it's a pity not to curb one's faults."
"Oh, bother faults. I don't want you to lecture me, Hetty."
"No, darling, I don't wish to; but I thought you were so fond of Mrs. Willis. I thought you would do anything to please her."
"Yes, of course. I think I do please her. She gave me two prizes at the break up—one for French and one for music. She kissed me, too, quite half-a-dozen times. Look here, Hetty, I don't want you to ask Annie Forest a lot of questions about me. I can't help having a romping time now and then at school; and there are two new girls—Polly and Milly Jenkins; they are so killingly funny; nearly as good as Boris and Kitty Lorrimer. I always had a little bit of the wild element in me, and I suppose it must come out somehow. Annie was wild enough when she was my age, wasn't she, Hester?"
"Annie will be gay and light-hearted to the end of the chapter!" exclaimed Hester.
"But she was naughty when she was my age, wasn't she?"
"She is not naughty now."
"Well, no more will I be when I am sixteen. Now, good-night, Het. Am I to sleep in your room?"
"How scrumptious. Look out for a fine waking early in the morning."
Nan hugged Hester in her usual rough-and-ready manner, and danced upstairs, singing as she went—
"Old Daddy-long-legs wouldn't say his prayers, Catch him by his left leg and throw him downstairs."
This was one of Nan's rhymes which Sir John detested. Her voice was loud and somewhat piercing. He heard it in the drawing-room, and went deliberately and shut the door.
"Miss Forest," he said to his young guest, "there are moments when I feel extremely uneasy with regard to the fate of my youngest daughter."
"About Nan's fate?" exclaimed Annie, raising her arched eyebrows; "why, she is quite the dearest little thing in the world. I wish you could see her at school; she is the pet of all the girls at Lavender House."
"That may be," said Sir John, with a slightly sarcastic movement of his thin lips; "but it does not follow that school pets are home pets. If my good friend, Mrs. Willis, finds Nan's society so agreeable, I wish she would arrange to keep her for the holidays."
Annie's young face, so round, so fresh, so charming, was fixed in grave surprise on her elderly host.
"Don't you love Nan at all?" she asked, wonder in her tone.
Sir John had been giving Miss Forest credit for great tact. Up to this moment, he had considered her a very pretty, agreeable little girl, who would be an acquisition in the house. Now he winced; she had trodden very severely on one of his corns.
"I naturally have a regard for my child," he said, after a pause, "and I presume that I show it best by having her properly educated and disciplined in her youth."
"Oh, no, I don't think you do," said Annie. "You must forgive me for saying frankly what I really think. I used to be like Nan when I was a little girl, and I'd never have changed—never—never, I'd never have become thoughtful for others, I'd always have been an unmitigated horror to all my friends if my father had treated me like that. He's not a bit like you, Sir John. I don't mean to compare him to you for a moment. He is quite a rough sort of man, and he has led a rough life; but, oh dear me, from the time he came back from Australia, and I knew that I had a living father, I cannot tell you what a difference there has been in my life. I have generally spent my holidays with him, and he has loved me so much that I have loved him back again, and have learnt to know exactly what will please him and make him happy. Nothing tamed me so much as the knowledge that I was necessary to my father's happiness. I am sure," added Annie in a low voice, and with a suspicion of tears in her eyes, "that it would be just the same with dear little Nan."
She broke down suddenly, half afraid of her own temerity. There was silence for nearly half a minute then Sir John rose from his chair, and, going over to a lamp which was slightly smoking, turned it down.
"If your father has been in Australia," he said, turning again and looking fixedly at his young visitor, "you will be interested in books on that country. I have got all Henry Kingsley's novels. You will find them in the library. Ask Hester to show you the book-case."
He strode deliberately out of the room, and Annie had to own to herself that she felt crushed.
Hester Thornton and Annie Forest had been educated at the same school—the well-known Lavender House. The fame of this school, the noble character of its mistress, the excellent training which each girl who went there received, formed a recommendation for each young student in after life. Hester and Annie had gone through severe storms in these early days. Their friendship had been cemented under the influence of great trouble. It was exactly a year now since Hester had been suddenly sent for from her busy and happy school life to take care of her father through a dangerous illness. He found her company so sweet, her skill and tact in managing his house so great, that he resolved not to allow her to go back to school again. Annie Forest was now, therefore, the head girl at Lavender House. She was Mrs. Willis's right hand; her help and support in every way. Annie was as great a favourite as of old, and as love and kindness had developed all the best side of her character, she was no longer the tomboy of the school, nor the one who was invariably the ringleader when mischief was afloat. She was still impulsive, however—eager, impatient—for such a nature as hers must fight on to the end of the chapter. She did not possess Hester Thornton's steady principles, and would always be influenced, whether for good or evil, by her companions. She was only to spend one more term at school; the future, after that, was practically unknown to her.
"I wish you'd tell me about Nan," said Hester, on the first evening of Annie's visit to the Grange. "I don't know why, but I feel a little anxious about her."
"You need not be," replied Annie. "She is a dear, jolly little pet, and as open as the day."
"She seems to get wilder and wilder," replied Hester. "You must have noticed, Annie, how she irritates my father."
"Of course I did," replied Annie. "Do you know, Het, that I had the unbounded cheek to give him a piece of my mind this evening?"
Annie was seated on the side of Hester's bed. She was in a blue dressing-gown, and her dark hair, in a mass of rebellious curls, was falling about her shoulders.
"I forgot that Nan was in the room," she said, putting her finger to her lips and glancing in the direction of Nan's small bed. "The little monkey may be awake, and I don't want her to hear my nonsense."
"She is sound asleep," replied Hester. "If she were awake, she would soon acquaint us with the fact."
"Shall I tell you what I really said to your father?" continued Annie.
"I don't know that I want to hear. I hope you did not shock him, for he is prepared to like you very much."
"I am prepared to like him. I think he is a delightful host; but, oh, how I should hate him for a father."
Hester's delicate face flushed crimson, her eyes flashed an angry light.
Annie jumped off the bed and ran to her friend's side.
"Now you are angry with me," she said; "but if I told him the truth, I may surely tell you. I know you are as good as an angel, but I am quite certain that he ruffles you up the wrong way."
"Don't, Annie," said Hester, in a voice of pain.
She walked to the window as she spoke, drew up the blind, and looked out. The night was dark, but innumerable stars could be seen in the deep, unfathomable vault of the sky. Hester clenched one of her hands tightly together. Annie stood and watched her.
"I would not hurt you for the world," she said. "I am sorry, very sorry; the fact is, I love you with all my heart, but I don't understand you."
"Yes you do, too well," replied Hester; "but there are some things I cannot and will not talk about even to you. Now let me take you to your room, the hour is very late."
Annie's pretty room was just on the other side of the passage. Hester took her to it, saw that she had every comfort, and wished her good-night. She then stood for a moment, with a look of irresolution on her face, in the corridor.
"I don't believe nurse is in bed; I will go and speak to her," she said to herself. "I thought the day when I welcomed Nan back from school, and when Annie came to visit me, would be quite the happiest day of my life, but it would never do to make my father's home uncomfortable for him." She reached the baize door, opened it, and soon found herself in the old nursery. She was right, nurse was not yet in bed.
"Well, now, my deary!" exclaimed the old woman, "and why are you losing your beauty sleep in this fashion? When I was young things used to be very different. Girls had to be in bed by ten o'clock sharp to keep away the wrinkles, but now they're all agog to burn the candle at both ends. It don't pay, Miss Hetty, my pet, it don't pay."
"I'm all right, nursey," replied Hester. "I'm the quietest and most jog-trot girl in the world as a rule. Of course I'm excited to-night, because Nan has come back."
"Bless her dear heart!" ejaculated nurse; "but I'm not to say satisfied about her hair, Miss Hetty. I don't believe it's pointed often enough. I found a lot of split ends when I was combing it out to-night."
"Oh, I think Nan is all right in every way," replied Hester. "No one could be kinder to her than Mrs. Willis, and she is very happy at school. Nurse, I've just come here for a moment to ask you to be very careful what you say to Nan about my father. You see, the object of my life is to make him happy, and to be a good daughter to him, and, in short, to try to take my mother's place."
"Eh, dear, we all know that," replied nurse, "and a sweeter young mistress there couldn't be. Why, there isn't a servant in the house who wouldn't do anything in the world for you, Miss Hetty; and everything in apple-pie order, and the meals served regular and beautiful, and inside and out perfect order, and all because there's an old head on young shoulders. There, perhaps it isn't a compliment I'm paying you, my dearie, but in one sense it is."
"Do you really think I manage well?" asked the girl, an anxious tone in her voice.
"Manage well? You manage beautiful. Your own mother, if she were alive, couldn't do better."
"I can never forget my mother," replied Hester, tears rising to her eyes. "Well, nurse, you will be very careful what you say to Nan. The object of my life is to make my father happy. If I can do that, I am content."
"You do, you do," replied the old woman. "No mortal can do more than their best, and you do that. Now, good-night, Miss Hester."
Hester took up her candle and went away. Nurse stood and watched the pretty young figure as it disappeared down the corridor.
"There," she said to herself as she began to prepare for her own bed. "There's another victim. Don't I know what my mistress was, and don't I know that Sir John's coldness and sharpness and no-heartedness just hurried her into her grave? Never a bit of real hearty love could he give to anyone. Just as just could be—righteous as righteous could be, but hard as a flint. My mistress drooped and faded and died, and Miss Hester will follow in her footsteps if I don't look after her. Sometimes I wish the master would marry again, and that he'd get a tartar of a wife. He might think of another wife if things were a bit uncomfortable here, but that they never will be while Miss Hetty is at the helm. She's a born manager, bless her, with her gentle ways and her firm words and her pretty little dignity. Miss Nan's business in life, it seems to me, is to set places all in a muddle, and Miss Hetty's to smooth them out again. Of course it's due to Miss Hetty to be mistress of the Grange, but sometimes I fear the life is too much for her, and she'll fret and fade like her mother before her; if I really thought that, I'd set my wits to work, old as I am, to get a real selfish wife for the master, who'd teach him a thing or two, for that's what he wants."
At this stage in her meditations, nurse laid her head on her pillow and was soon fast asleep.
The next morning promised a perfect day, and Hester, Annie, and Nan met in high spirits in the breakfast-room. The post had not yet arrived, but a letter was lying on Hester's plate.
"That's in dad's writing," said Nan, going up and examining it critically; "now what's up?"
Hester took the letter and opened it. It contained a few brief words. She read them with a sinking of heart which she could not account for—
"MY DEAR HETTY,—Your young companions will make the house quite gay for you. I shall, therefore, take the opportunity of going from home for a few days. I will send you a line to let you know when you may expect me back.—Your affectionate father, JOHN THORNTON.
"P.S.—I shall have left before you are down in the morning. Give my love to Nan, and wish Miss Forest good-bye for me. By the way, she is interested in Australia, so will you show her where Henry Kingsley's novels are to be found in the library?"
Nan, who had been peeping over Hester's shoulder while she was reading, now suddenly clapped her hands, shouted "hurrah" at the top of her voice, and, running up to Annie, began to waltz round and round the breakfast-table with her.
"Oh, oh!" she exclaimed, "then little girls may be heard as well as seen. Annie, there are two proverbs which are the bane of my life. I wonder dad has not had them both illuminated and framed and hung up in my nursery. One of them is: 'Little girls should be seen and not heard.' What a detestable old prig the person must have been who invented that proverb! I ask you, Annie, what would life be without little girls and their chatter? The other proverb is nearly as objectionable. This is it: 'Make a page of your own age.' According to dad, that only applies to little girls, and it means that they must always be fagging round, hunting for slippers and spectacles and newspapers and books for the older people who are past the age for paging, and that no one is ever to wait on them, however tired or however disinclined to stir they may happen to be. Now there'll be no one to make me page, and no one to keep me silent. Oh, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah! what a dear old dad to absent himself in this obliging manner."
"For my part, I am very sorry," said Annie, for Hester had passed her on the letter to read.
Hester said nothing, and breakfast began, Nan wasting as usual a prodigal amount of energy and spirits even over the operation of eating, Hester looking a little pale and a little thoughtful, Annie in a state of suppressed high spirits, which a slight awe which she still felt at times for Hester Thornton kept rather in check.
THE COLTS—ROBIN AND JOE.
The Towers was situated exactly two miles away from the Grange. It was a large, old house, with a castellated roof and a high tower at one end. It was a very old family place, and the Lorrimers had lived there from father to son for several hundreds of years. Like many ancient families, their wealth had diminished rather than increased with the times. The luxurious living, which has been in vogue more or less during the whole of the present century, had obliged them to part with some of their fair acres. The present owner had married for love, not for money. More lands had to be sold to meet the wants of a large and vigorous family, and, at the time when this story opens, the Lorrimers were, for their position, decidedly poor, not rich.
Squire Lorrimer had one dread ever before his eyes. This was the fear of having to part with the dear old Towers itself. If this blow fell, he was certain that it would kill him. He trusted to be able to avert this calamity by putting down expenses in all possible ways. There were too few servants, therefore, for the size of the house, too few gardeners for the size of the gardens, too few horses for the size of the stables.
Nevertheless, there was not in the whole length and breadth of the county of Warwickshire, a jollier, happier, more rollicking household than the Lorrimers. There were ten children, varying in age, from Molly, who would be sixteen on her next birthday, to little Phil, who had not yet attained the dignity of two years. There were six girls in the family and four boys. The two elder boys went to a good grammar school in the neighbourhood; the girls and Boris had a governess who taught them at home. Neither boys nor girls were educated quite up to the requirements of the times, but the father and mother were not going to worry themselves over this fact. Mr. Lorrimer had very strong views with regard to modern education. He had a hearty preference for big bodies instead of big brains. He was intensely old-fashioned as regards all modern views for the advancement of women, and said frankly that he would rather his sons emigrated than spent their lives as city clerks. He had a good deal of faith in things righting themselves naturally, and as his wife believed him to be the cleverest and wisest man in the universe, he was not tormented by any contrary opinions from her lips.
"The children will do very well," he used to say. "If I can only keep the land together, and the old house for Guy to inherit after me, I shall die a happy man. The girls are all pretty, unless we except poor little Elinor, and she, in some ways, has the sweetest face of the bunch; they are sure to find husbands by-and-by, and the younger lads can fend for themselves in the colonies if necessary. You needn't fret about the children, mother," he would add.
"I never fret about them," replied the soft-voiced, placid-looking mother, raising her dove-like blue eyes to her husband's face. "I think we are the happiest family in the world, and the children are the dearest creatures. With all their high spirits they are never really naughty. I have only one care," she added, looking at her husband affectionately and slipping her hand through his arm, "and that is when you talk of the possibility of selling the Towers."
"Well, Lucy, that hasn't come yet," he answered.
"What about that mortgage and the suretyship?"
"Oh, pooh! They are right enough yet. I make it a rule never to think of evil days before they really come. We'll pull through—we'll pull through, no fear. By the way, my dear, I had a splendid offer yesterday for the colts Joe and Robin. I closed with it in double quick time, and the dealer who has bought them will send over to fetch them this morning."
"Very well," said Mrs. Lorrimer. She went to the window of the room where the two were talking and stood there looking out.
She gazed on a lovely scene, composed of woodland, river, and gently sloping meadows and lawns. Exactly opposite her eyes was a paddock, and in the paddock the two colts which had just been sold were contentedly grazing. As Mrs. Lorrimer stood and looked out, a girl was seen to enter the paddock and go swiftly up to the colts, calling their names as she did so. They both came to her immediately. She threw an arm round the neck of one, while she fed them in turn with carrots and apples which she had in her apron. She was a slightly-made girl, with dark hair and a sallow face. Her hair hung heavily about her shoulders. She might have been ten years old, but looked younger.
"There's Nell," said the mother. "I am sorry the colts are going, she has always made such pets of them. I never saw her take to any creatures before as she has done to those two, and they'll follow her anywhere like lambs. I'm sorry you've got to sell them, Guy."
"Sorry!" retorted the Squire, with a sort of snort. "Didn't I tell you, Lucy, that Simmons has given me a cheque for three hundred and fifty pounds for the two. Of course, the creatures are thoroughbred, and may turn out worth a great deal more; still, in these days no one gives a fair price for anything, and three-fifty is not to be sneezed at when your rents are always behindhand and your balance at the bank is overdrawn."
The Squire left the room as he spoke, and Mrs. Lorrimer, with the faintest of little sighs, presently followed his example. Meanwhile, the girl in the paddock was having a thoroughly happy time. As soon as she had finished feeding her favourites, and they had done rubbing their noses against her face and shoulder, she looked eagerly round her, and saw with satisfaction that there was no one watching her from any of the many windows which blinked like eyes all over the old house. She now approached one of the colts cautiously, laid her hand on his neck, and with an adroit, quick movement sprang on his back. He was an untamed, unbroken-in creature. He would have submitted to no burden at all heavier or at all less dear than that of the slim child who had now mounted him.
"Hey, Robin, dear," she said, bending forward, catching hold of a wisp of his mane and almost whispering into his ear, "you'll take me round the paddock three times, won't you, as swift as the wind, and then it will be Joe's turn? As swift as you can fly you shall go, my bonny, bonny Robin. And afterwards you shall have your russet apple; it's in my pocket."
From the colt's attitude, he seemed perfectly to understand every word that was addressed to him. He pricked his ear; his eye glanced backward with loving intelligence. He pawed the ground impatiently—he would not be off until Nell gave the signal, but when it came there was no doubt that he would fly swiftly over the ground. Joe, the other colt, stood near expectantly. His turn was to come, he knew. For him, too, there would be the light weight of a loved little presence, followed by that delicious russet apple when the ride was over. Meanwhile, he would canter after Nelly and Robin, taking care not to go too near nor in any way to intrude himself mischievously.
"Now," said Nell, sitting bolt upright, "now, Robin—one, two, three, away!"
Away they went truly, mane and hair alike flying in the breeze—Nell's short skirts puffed out by the wind, Nell's cheeks with red flames on them, and Nell's dark grey eyes blazing like subdued fires.
Once round the paddock they flew—twice they went—three times. The third round was the fastest and the most delirious of all. Nell was so sure of her seat, so confident in Robin's powers, that she no longer even clasped his arched neck. Up flew her hands in the air. The delirious excitement rendered her giddy.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" she shouted.
The gay words were interrupted by eager words from approaching spectators. The gate of the paddock was pushed open, and Kitty, aged nine, followed by Boris, who was only seven, rushed on the scene. The children were followed by a couple of grooms and a strange, horsey-looking man.
"Oh, Nell, Nell!" exclaimed Kitty.
"They're sold, Nell," said Boris, in a gloomy voice. "You'd better get down. That fellow there has come"—waving his hand with immense dignity in the direction of the horsey man—"that fellow has come to take them away; they're sold."
"I don't believe it," said Nell.
Robin, who obeyed her slightest word, stood stock still when she told him. She dropped off his back with the lightness of a bird.
"Who says they're sold?" she asked. "I don't believe it."
She pressed her hand to her heart as she spoke, a pang of keen pain had shot through it; she turned pale, and her eyes still blazed.
"I don't believe it a bit," she said. "I'll go and find father and ask him if its true; I know it isn't true."
"There's father coming into the field," said Boris. "Yes, it's true enough, but you can ask him."
"Well, my man," said the Squire, who came upon the scene at this moment, "your master has sent you for the colts, I suppose? Here they are, as——Why, what's the matter, Nell? How white you are, child, and—not so tight, Nell, not so tight, you're half strangling me! What is it, my love—what is it?"
"You haven't sold Robin and Joe, father?"
"Oh, now, my little girl"—the Squire began to pat Nell's trembling hands soothingly. He looked hard into her quivering face, then, bending down, whispered something in her ear.
No one else heard the words.
Nell's frantic grasp relaxed; she let her hands fall to her sides and looked piteously round.
Robin and Joe had both followed her across the paddock. Robin expected his russet apple—Joe looked for his canter with Nell on his back.
"There's a brave little girl," said her father. "'Pon my word, I wouldn't do it if I could help it."
"No, father dear; of course not."
"You're a plucky young 'un," said her father admiringly. Boris and Kitty came close; the grooms and the horse-dealer also approached. There was a sort of ring round Nell and the colts.
"Please, father, may I give Robin his apple?" she asked. "He has earned it. May he have it?"
The Squire nodded.
"Of course he may," he said; then he turned to the horse dealer.
"My little girl is fond of these creatures," he said. "I hope you will have patience for a moment or two."
The man touched his hat respectfully.
"Certainly, sir," he answered, "as long as the young lady likes; there's no manner of hurry, and perhaps little miss would like to have another canter. I never see'd no one sit so bird-like on a horse—never, in the whole of my born days."
"Do you hear that, Nell?" said her father. "Would you like another canter? I didn't know you could ride bare-backed."
She smiled up at him, a perfectly brave smile; there were no tears in her eyes, although there were black shadows under them, and her face was as white as a little snowflake.
Robin munched his apple, and Joe came close to Nell and rubbed his head against her shoulder.
She fed him also, to his own great surprise, for he did not think that he had earned a morsel, and then, without a word, turned and walked out of the paddock.
Boris ran after her.
"I say, Nell!" he exclaimed, panting. "Would you like a white rat? I have four, and I—I'll give you one if you'll promise not to forget to feed it."
Nell stood still when Boris made this offer, and looked down into his ruddy, brown, sunburnt face. Boris had bright eyes, as round as two moons. The giving up of one of his white rats meant a great deal to him. Nell carefully weighed the value of the offer.
"No," she said at last in a deliberate tone. "I might forget to feed the rat, and I don't think I ever could love it; but thank you all the same, Boris."
"Don't mention it," said Boris, in his most polite tone; he was immensely relieved by Nell's declining his offer.
She walked slowly towards the house, and Boris turned to Kitty, who had followed him.
"I offered her a rat," he said; "but she wouldn't have it. Do you think she will be very bad for a bit?"
"Yes, I do," said Kitty. "She'll creep up into one of the lofts and burrow in the hay all by herself, and if she can have a right good cry perhaps she'll be better, but if she hasn't a cry, she'll fret awfully, and perhaps she'll turn sulky; but never mind about her now. I'm ever so glad she didn't take the rat. Let's run and feed them before we go to lessons."
"I wish there were no lessons," said Boris. "I hate them. I can't think what use they are. What can it matter in a big world like this, crowded up with boys and girls and men and women, whether I can spell right or not? I don't mind, and I don't see why anyone else should bother."
"I like spelling," said Kitty, who had a very intelligent face. "If I were a man or an embryo man, which you are, Boris, I'd have ambition, and I'd try to get on. I'd like to walk over the heads of the other boys, if I were you, and to take their prizes from them, and to have father and mother looking on, and a lot of grand ladies and gentlemen all dressed in their best praising and cheering and bowing and smiling. But boys are no good in these days. It's girls who do everything. Now, do be quick and let's feed the rats."
"You talk such nonsense," said Boris. "You don't suppose that ladies and gentlemen care whether boys and girls spell words right or not, and what rubbish you do say about best clothes and smiling and bowing."
"I don't," said Kitty, crossly; "it's you who talk rubbish. You have never been to school, so you can't possibly tell. You ask Nan Thornton, and she'll soon tell you what's done at school. Oh dear, oh dear, I wish I were at Lavender House instead of doing my lessons with stupid Jane Macalister!"
"You talk very dis'pectful," said Boris.
"Do I? I don't care. Oh, I am glad you didn't part with the white rat!"
Jane Macalister was the governess. She was old—at least the Lorrimers considered her old—she wore spectacles, and her hair was slightly tinged with grey. She had a queer mixture of qualities. She was affectionate and narrow; she was devoted to her pupils, and thought she could best show her devotion by an unceasing round of discipline. Fortunately, both for her and the little Lorrimers, this discipline never extended beyond the hours devoted to lessons. It never showed its stern visage in play hours, nor at meals, nor at night, nor on half holidays, nor on Sundays. During all these times, Jane was the intelligent and much belaboured companion. She was at everyone's beck and call. She was to be found here, there, and everywhere—darning the rent in Molly's frock, or helping Nora with her drawing, or trying to find a story-book for Nell which she had not already read at least six times, or healing the small squabbles with which Boris and Kitty helped to beguile the weary hours. Mrs. Lorrimer consulted her with regard to the cook and the servants generally. The Squire would shout to her to spare him a quarter of an hour in the study to see if he had totted up his accounts right. In short, Jane Macalister was as much part and parcel of the Lorrimer household as if she were really one of themselves. She was by no means educated up to the standard of the latter half of the nineteenth century, but what she did know, she knew thoroughly. She was methodical and helpful. The kind of person whom Mrs. Lorrimer was fond of quoting as invaluable. The children, one and all, loved her as a matter of course, but, in school hours, their love was certainly mingled with awe. In school hours, Jane allowed no relaxing of the iron rod.
Kitty and Boris, having just heard the dismal sound of the schoolroom bell, started from their fascinating occupation of feeding the white rats and ran as fast as their small feet could carry them in the direction of the house. They went in by a side entrance, and with panting breath and hot little steps began to mount the spiral staircase which led to the schoolroom in the tower. They were late already, and they knew that they could not possibly escape bad marks for unpunctuality. They pushed open the green baize door which admitted them to the sanctum of learning and came in. All the other children whom Miss Macalister taught were already in the room. Kitty and Boris were the sole delinquents—the only ones in disgrace; even Elinor was present. Their faces fell when they saw her. They had built great hopes on having at least Elinor's company in their disgrace. The swift thought had darted through both their minds that she would be safe to be extra naughty that morning, and in consequence would divert some of the storm of Jane Macalister's wrath from their devoted heads; but no, there she sat in her accustomed place, her hymn book open on her knee, marks of tears on her cheeks, it is true, but in all other respects she looked a provokingly model Elinor.
It was too bad; Kitty made a face at her across the schoolroom, and even Boris gave her a reproachful glance.
Jane Macalister fixed two awful spectacled eyes upon the culprits, and, scarlet blushes tingling in their cheeks, they took possession of their vacant chairs.
The children all sang their usual hymn, although Elinor's voice was a little husky and Boris held his book upside down.
"All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all."
"I wonder if He really made that dreadful horsey man," thought Nell, as she looked out of the window.
Boris smothered a sigh as he reflected again over the problem which had often before puzzled his small head—Why God, when he made everything so beautiful, had forgotten to give Jane Macalister a beautiful temper in school hours?
The singing was followed by the Bible reading, and then lessons began. Molly and Nora acquitted themselves admirably, as was their wont—Nell's dark grey eyes grew full of interest as she read the fascinating story of the "Field of the Cloth of Gold" in her history book—Kitty worked at her sums with fierce persistence and tried to fancy herself at boarding-school, going up rapidly to the top of her class, while Boris made more mistakes than ever over his dictation, and inked his fingers unmercifully.
"What was the use of fussing over such a stupid, useless thing as spelling?" This was his thought of thoughts.
The day was a warm one. Jane Macalister was icily cold, however, as unapproachable as an iceberg. Boris watched her with anxiety. He knew well that there was no chance for him and Kitty; they would both be punished for being late for prayers.
Oh, dear, oh, dear; why was Jane so unbeautiful, so unapproachable in school hours?
"I know she'll keep Kitty and me in during the whole of the play hour," he muttered to himself. "I'm certain of it, because the tip of her nose is getting red; that's a sign that she's worried, and when she's worried she's twice as bad as she is at any other time."
"What noise is that? Oh!—I say—Miss Macalister——"
Jane Macalister was always spoken to in this correct fashion during school hours.
"I say, there's a visitor!" burst from the eager lips of the little boy.
He started to his feet as he spoke, upsetting the ink-pot over his own copybook and also over Kitty's white-frilled pinafore.
"Boris, you are incorrigible!" exclaimed Jane. "You lose all your conduct marks for the week, and must stay indoors for an hour and learn a piece of poetry after lessons."
Boris got very red and tried to smile. The blow had fallen, so he wasn't going to whimper over it. He would stand up to his punishment like a man. He meant to be a soldier some day, and felt exactly now as if he were facing the guns. He met Elinor's full, troubled grey eyes, and seated himself slowly once more in his chair.
The steps had come nearer, the schoolroom door was burst open, and Nan Thornton rushed in.
"Here I am," she said. "I have come to torment you, Miss Macalister, and to beg off lessons at once. How do you do, children? How are you, Kitty? How are you, Boris? How do you do, Nell? Molly and Nora, I'll kiss you when I can get breath. Oh, what a climb those stairs are! Why do you have lessons in the tower? All the same, it's lovely when you are here. What a view! What a darling, darling, heavenly, scrumptious, ripping view. Oh, dear! oh, dear! I am out of breath. Jane, aren't you glad to see me? Aren't you glad to know that all the children are to have a holiday immediately? Shut up your books, young 'uns, and let's be off. You don't mind, do you, Jane?"
Certainly Jane Macalister did mind. The icy expression grew more marked on her face. Boris gave her a glance, felt that he was very close to the guns, and lowered his eyes. Nan began dancing about the room. Nan was in white—white hat, white frock. Her fluffy golden hair surrounded her like a cloud. Boris felt that she was something like a very naughty and very beautiful angel. Why was she tempting them all when Jane Macalister was like ice?
"I think, Nan," said Miss Macalister—"(how do you do, my dear? Of course I'm glad to see you)—I think I must ask you to leave the schoolroom for the present. Recess will be at half-past eleven, and then you can talk to all the children except Boris, who I grieve to say will have to undergo punishment. As to holidays, the summer holidays will begin in a fortnight, until then I cannot permit any such indulgence. Go away, Nan, for the present. Molly, I can attend to your German now. Bring your exercise book with the grammar and history."
Nan was not accustomed to being vanquished, but she was very near defeat then. The next moment she would have found herself ignominiously outside the baize door if other steps had not approached, and Hester, looking cool and sweet, Annie, all radiant and laughing, and Mrs. Lorrimer, with her usual gentle motherly expression, had not appeared on the scene.
"Jane," said the mother, smiling round with her blue eyes at each of the children, "Hester wants us to get up a hasty picnic to Friar's Wood. The day is perfect, and this is the first of Nan's holidays, so I hope you will not object, particularly if the children promise to work extra well to-morrow."
Jane began to close up all the books hastily. Nan's petition was not to be listened to for a moment. Mrs. Lorrimer's was law, and must be cheerfully obeyed.
"Certainly," she said, in a pleasant tone, dropping her frozen manner as if by magic. "It is a perfect day for a picnic. Leave the schoolroom tidy, my loves, and then go and get ready. You'd like me to see the cook, wouldn't you, Mrs. Lorrimer? I can help her to cut sandwiches and to pack plates and dishes."
"Jane, you're an angel," said Mrs. Lorrimer.
Jane Macalister kissed Hester, was introduced to Annie, and then rushed down the spiral stairs, intent on housekeeping cares.
The Lorrimer boys and girls surrounded Hester and Annie. Nan flitted in and out of the group, and was here, there, and everywhere. All was excitement and laughter. Presently the children left the schoolroom in a body.
No, there was one exception. Boris stayed behind. He looked wistfully after the others as they streamed away. Miss Macalister had not said a word about remitting his punishment, and he must be true to his colours. He found it very difficult to keep back his tears, but he would indeed think badly of himself if even one bright drop fell from his round blue eyes.
It would have comforted him if Kitty had noticed him. Kitty might have stayed if only to bestow a kiss of sympathy on him, but she was whirled on with the others. No one gave him a thought. He was only Boris, one of the younger children. He was alone in the schoolroom.
He looked at the clock; it pointed to half past eleven; he would not be free until half past twelve. Picnics at the Towers were hastily improvised affairs. Long before his hour of punishment was over the others would all be off and away. It was scarcely likely that any of them would even miss him. Kitty would be in such a frantic state of excitement at having Nan Thornton to talk to, that she would not have room in her heart to bestow a thought on him. He could not walk all the way to Friar's Wood, the day was too hot. How delicious it would be there in the shade. How interesting to watch the squirrels in the trees, and the rabbits as they darted in and out of their holes. Well, well, there was no use fretting. His heart felt sore, of course, but he wouldn't be half a boy in his own opinion if he didn't take his punishment without a murmur.
He drew his chair up to the table, pushed his ink-stained fingers through his curly brown locks, and looked around him.
Miss Macalister had forgotten to set him any task, but he supposed he could set himself something.
He was just wondering what would be the least irksome form of punishment he could devise, when a small head was pushed in at the door, and a voice, in accents of extreme surprise, shouted his name.
"Why, Boris, what are you doing? They'll be off if you don't look sharp."
"I'm not going, Nell," said Boris; "but please don't fuss over it, it's nothing."
"Nothing!" said Nell, coming into the room and seating herself by the side of her little brother. "Don't you love picnics?"
"I adore them," said Boris.
He shut up his lips as he spoke and winked his eyes.
"Don't make a fuss," he said again after a pause. "Do you think I might learn a bit of the 'Ancient Mariner' for my punishment task? I like that old chap, he's so grisly."
"It's a splendid poem," said Nell with enthusiasm, "particularly that part about—
'Water, water everywhere, And not a drop to drink.'
Can't you picture it all, Boris? The sea like a great pond, and the thirsty old mariner looking at it, and longing, and longing, and longing to drink it, and the dead people lying round. Sometimes at night I think of it, and then afterwards I have a good, big, startling dream. A dream that's not too frightful is almost as good as a story-book. Don't you think so?"
"No, I don't," said Boris. "I hate dreams. Perhaps I'd better learn the first six verses of the 'Ancient Mariner,' and perhaps I'd better begin at once. Jane Macalister is very stern, isn't she, Nell?"
"Awful in lesson times," said Nell.
"Well, the only way I can bear it," said Boris, "is this—I think of her as the general of an army. I don't mind obeying her when I think of her in that way. Soldiers have to promise obedience before anything else, and I'm going to be a soldier some day. I'd better not talk now, Nell, for I must get the first six verses of the 'Ancient' into me in an hour, and I can't if you keep chattering. The general was rather sharp with me this morning, I must say, for all my conduct marks are gone, too, and I won't get sixpence on Saturday, and I'll have nothing to subscribe to mother's birthday present; still, of course, 'tis 'diculous to fuss. You'd best go, Nell. Why aren't you ready for the picnic?"
"I'm not going," said Nell. "I have a headache, and a drive in the sun would make it worse. Besides, Nan Thornton does chatter so awfully."
"Chatter," repeated Boris; "you don't mean to say you mind her chattering?"
"Yes, I do, when I have a headache."
"Well, I think she's sweet," said Boris.
"You had better learn your 'Mariner,' Boris, and I'll sit in the window and look out."
The schoolroom was so high up in the tower that people who sat in one of its windows had really only a bird's-eye view of what went on below.
Boris, in his rather tumbled sailor suit, sat with his back to Nell. He kicked the rungs of the chair very often with his sturdy legs. His inky fingers took fond clutches of his curls, his lips murmured the rhyme of the "Ancient Mariner" in a monotonous sing-song. Nell pushed open the lattice window and looked out. There was a waggonette drawn by a rather bony old horse standing by the side entrance; behind the waggonette was a pony-cart, a good deal the worse for wear. The pony, whose name was Shag, stood very still and flicked his long tail backwards and forwards to keep the flies away. Nell saw Miss Macalister and two of the servants come out with those flat delicious picnic baskets which she knew so well, and which had so often made her lips water in fond anticipation; they were placed with solemnity in the waggonette. Then Molly and Nora, in their white sun-bonnets, took their places, and Hester and Annie sat opposite to them, and Mrs. Lorrimer took the seat of honour, and two or three of the smaller children were packed in heterogeneously, while Nan and Kitty and Miss Macalister bundled themselves into the pony-cart.
Nell's heart beat high as she watched. Was no one going to think of her and Boris? Was no one going to miss them?
Apparently no one was.
The gay cavalcade got under weigh and disappeared from view down the long and lovely beech avenue.
Nell did not wish to go to the picnic, not to-day with her heart so sore, but it made that heart feel all the sorer not to be missed.
As a matter of fact, the picnic party imagined that Boris and Nell intended to follow on later in the donkey-cart. The Lorrimer picnics were well known in the neighbourhood. They always passed through the village in the following order—first the waggonette, drawn by the bony horse and packed to overflowing with baskets and young people, who waved their arms and shouted in high glee as they went by; then the pony-trap, driven sometimes by Jane Macalister, sometimes, when Jane was in a very good humour, by Kitty or even Boris; and last, at an interval of about half an hour, the donkey-cart. The donkey-cart as a rule contained kettles and pots, for the Lorrimers would consider a picnic only half a picnic if they did not boil their own potatoes out of doors and make their own tea in the woods. Consequently, the coarser utensils which were required for the feast were usually reserved for the donkey-cart. The donkey, as a rule, was driven, or rather led, by Guy, the tall schoolboy, aged thirteen, who would be owner of the Towers, if it were not sold over his head, some day. Harry, the brother next in age, would also accompany the donkey-cart, and sometimes one or two of the younger children would prefer this rough mode of travelling to the more refined waggonette or the fleeter pony-carriage. The donkey-cart had of course to be late, as Guy and Harry would not be home from school until quite an hour after the rest of the party had started.
"Where is Boris?" asked Hester, addressing herself to Molly when they had driven about half of the distance.
Molly had tranquil blue eyes, like her mother.
"Isn't he in the pony-carriage?" she asked.
"Who is Boris?" interrupted Annie Forest. "Is he the pretty little round-faced boy in the sailor suit?"
"Yes," said Nora, joining in the conversation.
"Then he's not in the pony-trap," replied Annie. "I don't think he left the schoolroom."
"Cute little beggar," laughed Nora. "He wants to come in the donkey-cart."
Annie raised her brows in inquiry; the mystery of the donkey-cart was explained to her, and no further questions were asked with regard to Boris.
Elinor had not yet been missed.
Friar's Wood was a perfect place for a picnic, and in due course of time the happy cavalcade arrived there. The younger children and Miss Macalister began to make preparations for the first meal. The Lorrimers always had two hearty ones whenever they went on a picnic. Kitty, Nora, and Annie Forest went off to explore the Fairies' Glen, a lovely spot about a quarter of a mile away. Mrs. Lorrimer took out her knitting and sat with her back against a great beech tree, and Molly and Hester found themselves thrown together.
"That's right," exclaimed Molly. "I wanted to have a talk with you, Hetty. Will you come to the top of the knoll with me? We can sit there and cool ourselves. There is not the faintest chance of dinner being ready for quite an hour."
The girls set off at once. Molly was not yet sixteen, Hester was past seventeen, nevertheless they had been intimate friends for a long time.
"Why have you got that little frown between your brows, Molly?" asked Hester.
It smoothed out the moment Hester spoke.
"I surely ought not to have a frown to-day," retorted Molly. "The weather is glorious, we are all in perfect health, we are out for a picnic, you are here, you have brought your friend, Annie, about whom we have always heard so much, and Nan is home from school. Yes, I certainly ought not to frown; but let me retort on you, Hester. Why have you those grave lines round your lips?"
"Because I'm a goose," answered Hester. "Sit down here, Molly. You have not got me up to the top of this knoll just to make me recount my grievances. Out with yours; you know you have one at least."
"Well, yes, I have one," said Molly. "A horrid little cankering jade—a sort of black imp. I thought I had tucked him up snug in bed until the evening, and there, you have loosened the sheets, and he has sprung up again to confront me."
Molly's honest face was undoubtedly troubled now, and there was a suspicion of tears in the blue eyes, which were nearly as frank and round as Boris's.
"I suppose I must confess," she said: "it's only that the colts, Joe and Robin, have been sold."
"I don't think I know them," said Hester.
"Well, you must imagine them. They are not broken-in yet. They were born at the Towers, and we used to feed them when they were foals. Then one day Robin got rather wild, and kicked Boris severely, and father said we were to leave them alone; but Nell somehow managed to evade the order; she never could be got to fear any four-footed creature. She spent almost all her leisure time with the colts, and I believe she used to ride them bare-backed. Well, they were sold this morning, and Nell will fret awfully. Fretting is very bad for her, for she is not at all strong, you know. That is one thing that troubles me," continued Molly, after a brief pause. "I am sorry the colts are sold, on account of Nell, for I know, although she won't pretend to fret a bit, how she will secretly grieve and grieve; and the other reason is, that I know father would not have sold them if he had not been hard up for money again. Oh, I wish, I wish," continued Molly, her face turning crimson, "that there was no such thing as money in the world."
Hester looked at her with a mingling of sympathy and surprise.
"I think you must be wrong," she said slowly. "I mean, of course, that I know you're not rich as my father is rich, for you are such a large family, and father has only Nan and me; but still, it cannot be true that your father wants money to the extent of having to sell the colts to get it, Molly."
"I'm afraid it is true," said Molly, in a sad voice. "I wish it were only my imagination. You would never take me for a fanciful girl, would you, Hester? I am always called matter-of-fact, and I think I am. I really don't care a bit for poetry, and not much for music, and even story-books don't amuse me unless they're the downright sort, like 'Little Women,' or unless they tell all about housekeeping and that sort of thing. I love cooking, and I rather like accounts, and I delight in overhauling the linen cupboard, and I am not a bad hand at darning the linen. I'm just a commonplace, matter-of-fact sort of girl; it isn't in me to imagine things."
"Well?" said Hester, for she saw that Molly was intensely in earnest.
"I know I'm right about the money," said Molly. "You cannot think how troubled father looks sometimes; and mother told me only yesterday that we were not to go to the seaside this year, and she thinks our shabby old hats will do quite well for church. You don't suppose I care about shabby hats, or even about the seaside, but I do care when I see father looking troubled. Once a stranger came to see him, and they were shut up together in the library for a long time, and when he went away I noticed that father looked quite old. Oh, I know there are money troubles, and I am sure things will get worse. I know what father dreads, and dreads and dreads. Oh, Hester, if it happens it will kill him!"
"Molly, dear, how white you are. If what happens?"
"Don't whisper it, Hester; but I dread it. If he has to sell the Towers it will kill him."
"To sell the Towers!" echoed Hester. "I should think so, indeed; but——"
"What are you two doing up there?" shouted the voice of Nora from below. "Come down at once and make yourselves useful. The donkey-cart has come, and so have Guy and Harry, and we are washing the potatoes and want you to rub them, Molly. Come along down and help, you lazy good-for-nothings."
The girls hastened to obey. As if by magic all trace of a cloud left Molly's face. It became radiant, smiling, and dimpled. She was once more matter-of-fact, charming, capable Molly, who could work with a will and never once think of herself. Molly was so generally self-forgetful, that her happiness was not put on. Good-nature shone from her eyes. She was not a particularly brilliant or witty girl, but she was a strong rock to rely upon, as all the other Lorrimers knew well.
Nora, who was very pretty and very gay, gave herself up to heedless enjoyment as soon as Molly appeared upon the scene. The potatoes would certainly be done to a turn now. The table-cloth would be laid in that part of the wood where the midges were least troublesome. Jane Macalister would not have to complain of no one helping her. Guy, who was very like Molly, and nearly as good-natured, would also do his best to make the picnic lively, and Nora, one year Molly's junior, could give herself up to the fascinations of Annie Forest's society.
Nora had never before found herself in the company of such a completely grown-up and such a very pretty girl. Nora could give herself little airs when occasion required. She could put on rather a killing grown-up sort of would-be society manner. She never dared adopt it when Guy and Harry were near, but she contrived to get Annie away by herself, and then indulged in what the other children called her "high-falutin" talk.
It was nipped in the bud, however, by Annie herself. Annie Forest was nothing if she was not frank and fearlessly matter-of-fact. She quickly discovered how hollow and insufficient poor Nora's attempts to maintain a worldly conversation really were. She crushed her by telling her that she had never been in society herself in the whole course of her life, that she knew nothing whatever of it or its ways, that she had just left school, and that in all probability she would have to earn her bread in the future.
"But, look here, Nora!" she exclaimed, suddenly, "why should we two stand here chattering? I'm sure we ought to help the others."
"Oh, no; there's nothing really to be done," replied Nora, in a languid voice. "I like picnics, but I hate the fuss of preparing the meals, and as all the others adore it, I generally leave it for them to do. Won't you sit here? There is a charming little peep between those two oak trees. You can just see the Towers from there, and I think the Grange also. Don't you think the Grange a very beautiful place?"
"Yes; but not half as beautiful as the Towers."
"Don't you, really? Well, I am surprised! Of course, the Towers is very old. We are quite one of the very oldest of the county families round here, but my father likes us to live quietly just at present. Molly and I will have to be presented by-and-by. It is a pity father and mother don't think more about society, but they'll have to when we are grown up, and Molly is sixteen now. Hester will be very rich, and so will Nan. I'm surprised that you prefer the Towers to the Grange."
"I beg your pardon," said Annie, "but did not the donkey-cart arrive about half an hour ago?"
"Yes, of course."
"And two of your brothers with it?"
"Yes," replied Nora, suppressing a yawn, "Guy and Harry. How hot it is to-day—the heat makes one dreadfully languid, does it not?"
"I must go and tell Hester that Boris has not come," exclaimed Annie.
She put wings to her feet as she spoke, and left the astonished and indignant Nora to her own reflections.
Annie ran quickly through the wood. The sound of many voices floated on the summer breeze to greet her. She had almost reached the party when she suddenly came upon Kitty, who was standing alone. Kitty had just had a furious quarrel with Nan, and was in consequence feeling considerably out in the cold. Kitty knew that Boris was not of the party. She had known this from the beginning, but in the excitement and fun of having Nan Thornton to herself had been too selfish to mention the fact. Kitty guessed why Boris had remained behind. She remembered the severe punishment which Jane Macalister had inflicted upon him—a punishment which Jane had doubtless forgotten, but which Boris himself remembered.
Kitty thought of Boris now as she stood by a blackberry-bush, and pricked her finger on purpose against one of the thorns. Nan had been very snubbing and very disagreeable, and Kitty cordially hated her for the time being, and wished with all her heart that Boris was there. She could snub Boris, who would never retort, but now there was no one for her to play with.
"What is your name?" asked Annie, stopping and looking at her kindly; "you are one of the Lorrimers, of course, but I have not caught your name yet. Do you mind telling it to me?"
"I'm Kitty," answered the little girl; she raised her brown eyes and looked full at Annie. She had never seen anyone so lovely as Annie before. She had never even imagined that the world could contain anyone so sparkling and so gay.
"You're Kitty; that is capital," replied Annie. "Then, Kitty, I am sure you will do just as well as Hester. Can you tell me why your dear little brother Boris has not come to the picnic?"
"I was thinking of him," said Kitty. Tears slowly welled up into her eyes; her heart began to ache; she tried to prick her finger again to relieve the pain inside.
"Boris has not come," she replied. "I'll tell you why. He spilt some ink, and Jane Macalister said he must be punished by staying indoors for a whole hour after lessons were over. I expect she forgot all about Boris when we got a holiday so suddenly, but Boris didn't forget, and he stayed behind."
"Dear little Boris!" exclaimed Annie; "dear, good, plucky little Boris! The moment I looked at him I knew I should adore him. But see here, Kitty, the hour is up now, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, of course; some time ago."
"Then he'll follow us, won't he?"
"How can he? He can't come alone; it's nearly an hour's drive to Friar's Wood."
"Of course he cannot walk," said Annie, impatiently; "but haven't you got a trap or carriage, or horse, or something?"
"No, I'm afraid we haven't," said Kitty, looking very sorrowful. "There's only old Rover, who draws the waggonette, and Dobbin the pony, and Jacko the donkey. Of course, there's father's mare, she's quite a beauty; but we are none of us allowed to have anything to do with her."
"Then we are not to have dear little Boris at the picnic?" said Annie; "I declare I shan't enjoy it a bit. I want him to be my own special knight."
"What do you want a knight for?" asked Kitty, looking up with interest.
"What do I want a knight for? You silly child, all fair ladies want their own true knights."
"You are a very fair lady," said Kitty. "At least, I mean you're a very lovely lady—very, very lovely; but can't you do with Guy or Harry for a knight?"
"No; I have fallen in love with Boris, and I won't have anyone else. Kitty, can't we manage to get him to the picnic?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. He could ride Harry's bicycle, but I don't think it would once enter into his head."
"It would if I went back and told him to."
"How can you go back? You can't walk."
"Yes, I am a splendid walker. Besides, I am sure the road is longer than by the fields, and you could take me part of the way and show me the short cuts."
"It would take a long, long time," said Kitty, "and when you came back dinner would be over, and you'd have lost quite half the fun."
"No, you dear little thing, I wouldn't. I mean to go and fetch Boris; virtue shall be rewarded, and the knight shall be rescued by the lady. Now, come with me part of the way and show me the short cuts. Why, I'm as strong as a lion. You don't suppose a walk of a few miles tires me? Come along, Kit, we are wasting time."
In reality, Kitty was charmed beyond words with any move which was to bring Boris on the scene. The moment Boris seemed at all unattainable, he became wonderfully precious in Kitty's eyes. She would, of course, snub him in five minutes after he did arrive, but that really did not matter. The fascination of Annie's secret mission also delighted her much, and she skipped along now by the side of this beautiful lady in a state of high good-humour.
"I'll show you a lovely short cut," she said. "It will take two miles off the distance. There's a bog, and a sunken ditch, and a wire fence; but you won't mind them, will you?"
"Not a bit," said Annie, laughter in her eyes.
"And there's farmer Granger's bull-dog, and perhaps the bull himself may be in the four acre field; but you won't mind," continued Kitty.
"Not a bit, not a bit."
"Well, let's run down into this little dell. I'll start you from the wicket gate at the end of the dell."
"It sounds quite Pilgrim's Progressy," said Annie.
"Annie," said Kitty, in an ecstatic whisper, "is it to be a secret?"
"Of course; if you dare to reveal it my knight shall execute vengeance on you."
"Oh, Annie!" said Kitty, "I do love you; its so perfectly delicious to have a secret."
"Well, see you keep this one faithfully. Now we have come to the wicket gate. How shall I go? Can I see the bull from here?"
"Can I hear the bull-dog bark?"
"Kitty, you little wretch, you've been trying to frighten me with imaginary dangers. Yes, I see my road. I follow the winding path wherever it leads. Keep a bit of dinner for me, Kitty. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
Kitty promised, and Annie started with great vigour on her long walk.
Kitty stood at the stile and watched her. Suddenly she raised a cry.
"You'll find Nell at home, too, Annie."
"Is Nell another Lorrimer?"
"Yes; the ugly one of the family; the duckling, we call her most times."
"Well, the duckling shall come, too," shouted heedless Annie; and Kitty, with the full weight and delirious importance of her secret radiating all over her stout little person, slowly returned to the other members of the picnic party.
THE STORY BOOK LADY.
Annie found the road hot and the way long. As she said, she was a very good walker, and was never daunted by difficulties or dangers either real or imaginary. She was impressed by Boris's bright little face, and Kitty's story of his fidelity to the path of duty touched her quick and affectionate nature. Annie Forest, the grown-up girl, was very like Annie Forest, the child. She was still intensely impulsive, wayward, and eager. Her faults were in a great manner subdued, but they were not eradicated. She was intensely affectionate, brave, and true as steel; but she was apt to be both heedless and thoughtless. When rushing away to rescue Boris, it never once entered into her head that the secret of her absence might prove very troublesome to poor Kitty, and that the rest of the party might suffer uneasiness on her account. Without any adventure from bull or bull-dog, without endangering her life in the bog, which turned out to be almost non-existent at this time of year, she reached the Towers at the most sultry time of the day, and appeared upon the scene between one and two o'clock, a tired, flushed, and very thirsty Annie. All during her walk she pictured Boris's state of despair. She saw in her mind's eye a vision of his little, flushed, tear-stained face. She thought of Nell, too, and imagined the rapture with which the ugly duckling would greet her, the deliverer of the oppressed.
Annie entered the Towers by a side entrance, and, skirting a pretty, shady lawn, approached the house by the nearest way. As she did so, she was attracted by voices which seemed to proceed from out of a clump of trees. She stepped close to the spot from where the sound proceeded, and, craning her neck, looked over the thick laurustinus bushes, which enclosed a very tiny lawn or plot of grass.
Seated here, in the utmost peace and apparent contentment, were the poor victims for whom she had exerted herself so terribly. Nell was lying full length on her back on the grass. Boris was seated tailorwise on the ground a little way off. Nell had a white rat curled up in her hair and another nestling in her neck. Boris was feeding some white hares and some pet rabbits. The children were eagerly talking to their animals, and Annie had to own to herself that there was nothing in the least unhappy or even morbid in the sound of either of the voices.
For a moment the children's perfect happiness almost vexed her. It seemed provoking to have taken that long, exhausting walk for nothing, and oh! how hungry and thirsty, how very hungry and thirsty she felt.
The next instant, however, her good-nature asserted itself. She said "Hullo!" pushed her way through the laurustinus hedge, and stood in the midst of the group.
Nell started into a sitting position, tumbling the white rats on to her lap. She looked up at Annie. What a tumbled, dishevelled, hot, but oh, what a pretty strange lady was this! Nell worshipped beauty with the passion of a very hot and fervent little soul. She had scarcely noticed Annie in the schoolroom, but now her heart went out to her with a great throb.
"Who are you?" she said. "Where do you come from? What is your name?"
"Oh, I'm not a fairy, my good child!" said Annie. "I'm a poor, exhausted girl, who thought she was performing a very heroic feat and finds herself mistaken."
"Pray come in and take a seat," said Boris, who was always the soul of gentlemanly politeness. He stood up as he spoke, tumbling his rabbits and hares helter skelter in all directions, and tried to push back the laurustinus hedge for Annie. She squeezed through, tearing her cotton dress as she did so.
"Oh, dear, dear, your sweet dress is spoiled!" said Nell, in a tender voice.
"Never mind," answered Annie; "one must lose something to attain to this perfection."
"Won't you seat yourself?" said Boris.
He pointed to the grass, and Annie sat upon it with a sense of delight.
"How hot you are," said Nell. "What can we do for you? Would it soothe you to stroke one of the rats? This darling, for instance. His name is Crinklety."
Annie took the rat on her lap and looked at it reflectively.
"It's a darling," she said, "and so are the rabbits, and so are the hares; but oh, I'm so hot and so thirsty! and oh, children, don't you know what I've come about, and don't you know who I am?"
"No, I'm sure we don't," answered Boris. Nell stared solemnly; she did not speak.
"Well," said Annie, "I see I must introduce myself. I am Annie Forest. I'm Hester Thornton's friend, and I came here this morning with Hetty and Nan, and we all started on a picnic, and when we came to Friar's Wood, I found that you, Boris—you see I know your name—and you, Nell, were left behind, and I could not stand it somehow; it seemed too cruel and unfair, so I—I came back for you."
"How did you come?" asked Boris. "Did you drive back with Dobbin or Jacko?"
"No; they will have plenty to do this evening, and why should I give them double work, poor dears? No; I came back with these," she pushed out her dainty, but very dusty, feet as she spoke.
"You mean that you walked?" said Nell. "You walked all that long way just because of us two children that you knew nothing about. I didn't believe it was true. I never believed anything so perfectly splendid could be true out of a story book. Boris, do you hear? She walked from Friar's Wood all by herself."
"Are you awfully dead beat?" asked Boris, standing in his sturdy attitude in front of Annie and looking at her with immense attention.
"Yes; I never was hotter in my life, and I don't think I ever felt more tired. It is such a blazing day."
"Then you don't want to walk back again?"
"Well, I suppose I must, only I think I'll rest a little bit first, and perhaps one of you can bring me a glass of water. I consulted Kitty about it, and Kitty said you could ride your brother's bicycle, Boris. She only told me about Nell just when I was starting, but perhaps Nell can get on the bicycle sometimes, too. I'm not quite sure how it can be managed."
"You need not trouble about me," said Nell, "for I'm not going to the picnic. I don't wish to."
"And I don't wish to either," said Boris; "there's nothing to go for now, for dinner will be over. I always think the fun of a picnic is washing the potatoes and lighting the bonfire, and they'll be all over long ago."
"Well, then," said Annie, "I see that I have made myself a martyr in an unnecessary cause. You bad children, you are not a bit unhappy at staying at home, and I pictured you both such miserable little victims."
"Would you rather have seen us miserable?" asked Boris.
"Of course I'd much rather have seen you miserable, you little wretch. How dare you look at me with those smiling, bright blue eyes? If I had seen you and Nell pale and wretched, and a little bit withered up, I'd have felt that my walk had been taken for a good purpose; but now——"
"Perhaps you think," said Nell, looking at Annie with great earnestness, "that you did nothing when you took that walk and when you made the story books come true. You did a great deal for me. We are Lorrimers, Boris and I, and it isn't the fashion for a Lorrimer ever to fret when things can't be helped. Boris would have liked to go to the picnic, and I'd have liked it, too, if it had happened on another day, but as we couldn't go, we meant to have a picnic at home. Will you stay with us and help us to make up a jolly picnic at home?"
"Of course I will, only too gladly."
"Then, Boris," said Nell, "we had best fetch the food while the story book lady is resting."
The children disappeared, and Annie lay back on the grass and laughed to herself. She was absorbed as usual with the fascination of the moment, and forgot all about Kitty, who would be carefully guarding her secret far away in Friar's Wood.
The picnic, which was partaken of by Annie, Nell, and Boris on the tiny lawn, surrounded by the laurustinus hedge, was a truly gay affair. The white hares, the rabbits, the rats, joined the company of diners, and Annie became her gayest and wildest self. When dinner was over, Boris reluctantly took his pets back to the out-house where they were kept, and then returned once more to the fascination of strawberries, cream, and Annie Forest's society.
Meanwhile, in Friar's Wood, Kitty was keeping an eager look-out. It was almost time for Annie to come back, and all the other members of the party who did not know where she had gone were becoming anxious about her. They would have been much more so but for Hester and Nan. But Hester and Nan were both well accustomed to Annie's many vagaries.
"If it were anyone else, I should fret about her," said Hester, answering Nora's eager inquiry for about the twentieth time. "She has wandered away in the wood by herself and will come back when she pleases, or perhaps she may have gone straight back to the Towers or to the Grange. Annie is grown up now, and she can take care of herself. There is no manner of use in fretting about her."
"If you only knew Annie at school!" exclaimed Nan. "Why there is quite a proverb about Annie at school. Let me see, this is it: 'The only thing to be expected of Annie Forest is the unexpected.' Now don't let's talk of her any more. She is a dear old Annie; but why should she spoil this lovely, perfect day, the first of my holidays? Guy, I wish you'd come and sit next me. Let us get up a jolly game of hide and seek."
"No," said Guy, "It's too hot at present. We will presently, when the sun gets a bit lower."
"Then tell me a story, there's a darling Guy."
Guy complied rather lazily. Nan moved a little apart with him, and the two began an eager, whispered conversation. Molly and Hester once more joined forces and resumed the interrupted talk of the morning. The others wandered away in different directions, and Nora and Kitty found themselves together. Nora felt rather discontented. She missed Annie Forest, not because she particularly liked her just now, but because Annie's conduct during their morning walk had rather piqued her. Nora was quite sharp enough to read Kitty's secret in her troubled, demure, watchful and impatient eyes. She thought it would be rather good fun to bully Kitty a little.
"What are you staring through that long line of trees for?" she said. "Come here, and out with it at once. You know you're bursting with a secret. If you don't tell soon you'll explode, and there'll be nothing left of you. Come here, I say, and out with it."
Nora thought it quite unnecessary to put on her society manners for Kitty's benefit.
"Come here, Kit, at once, when I call you," she said, in a cross voice.
"I needn't come if I don't like," answered Kitty. "I'm not obliged to obey you, so don't you think it."
"Highty tighty. Do you suppose I'm going to take impertinence from a little chit like you? You know perfectly well where Annie Forest has gone, and it is your duty to tell."
"I won't tell. There!"
"Ah!" laughed Nora, now thoroughly exasperated. "I guessed you had a secret. I knew it when I saw you shutting up your lips so straightly, and putting on that little demure expression whenever Annie's name was mentioned. Now you have confessed it."
"I have confessed nothing," said Kitty in alarm.
"Yes, you have; you said you wouldn't tell. How could you say you wouldn't tell if you had nothing to tell? I know mother is uneasy about Annie, and I know Jane Macalister is uneasy, and you know where she is and you dare to keep them in suspense. Come along to mother at once. She'll soon get this secret out of you."
"I won't go, Nora—I won't. I'll climb up into this tree, where you can't catch me. Here," continued Kitty, suiting the action to the word, "you can't catch me up here; you can't. I won't go to mother—no, I won't."
"You will if I make you," said Nora. "You think I can't climb."
"You wouldn't dare to climb!" exclaimed Kitty, shouting down from the foliage of the tree into which she had hastily swung herself. "You'll get your frock all torn, and Molly and Jane will be just mad. You daren't climb, Nora—you daren't. You can't catch me Nora—you can't."
Nora had a quick temper, and Kitty's manner was most exasperating. Under ordinary circumstances the ladylike Nora would have hated climbing trees, but now all was forgotten in her fierce desire to lay hold of the daring, exasperating little Kitty and to force her secret out of her. How dared Annie Forest snub Nora and then confide in a baby like Kitty?
"Unless you come down this minute, I'll follow you into the tree and drag you down," said Nora. "Now you know what I mean to do, so come down this instant."
"Not I, not I," laughed Kitty. She had been rather frightened while Nora was taunting her on the ground, but now she felt so secure that she could afford to laugh, and even in her turn to use taunting words.
"I knew you were too much of a coward, fine, ladylike Miss Nora, to climb up here," she said; "and I'm going to stay here just as long as I please."
"Oh, are you?" said Nora. "There'll be two people to decide that point." She was in a blind fury now, and, before Kitty could say another word, began to swarm up the tree. She managed to catch the branch where Kitty had planted herself, and in another instant would have caught hold of the little girl's dress; but Kitty and Boris could both climb like monkeys, and it did not take the little girl an instant to swing herself on to a higher branch. Nora's mettle was now up. She was resolved that Kitty should not conquer her. The spirit of defiance in Kitty made her resolve to die rather than be taken.